SALT LAKE CITY — Here we are on the eve of another American day of judgment, aka a presidential election, and you can bet there are some very nervous people out there, crossing their fingers, knocking on wood, hoping this time they get it right. Their reputations are on the line, not to mention their credibility. Who’s going to give them a job if they blow it again?
Not the candidates. The pollsters.
Could the election of 2016 have gone any worse if you were in the business of forecasting the result of the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? With only two exceptions, all the major polls, dozens of them, got it wrong. And not just wrong, really wrong. Think Enron wrong. Think Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 wrong.
One big-time political prognosticator, the Princeton Election Consortium, gave Clinton a 99% chance of winning after surveying the various polls. The New York Times had Clinton at 85%, writing on the day of the election: “Clinton’s chance of losing is about the same as the probability that an NFL kicker misses a 37-yard field goal.” A day later the quote took its place in journalistic history alongside the infamous 1948 Chicago Tribune headline: “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”
To be fair, the polls didn’t actually predict anything. There were no guarantees. No bets were placed. They measured the probabilities given the people they surveyed and the answers they were given. They gave us a snapshot. Polls are very upfront about not being crystal balls.
But still, everyone likes to be right.
Four years later, the polls get a do-over. The scene is eerily familiar. Just like 2016, the forecast is for a Democratic victory, this time Joe Biden over Donald Trump. On average, the polls are projecting 51% of the vote to Biden, 43% to Trump. The eight-point edge is more than double Clinton’s three- to four-point projection in 2016.
The big question on election eve: Are they right?
For an astute observation, let’s turn to Dave Hansen. Everyone in Utah politics knows and respects Hansen. For nearly 50 years he’s had his finger on the political pulse. “I’d guess Hansen has managed more political campaigns than any living Utahn, possibly more than anyone else in Utah history,” wrote LaVarr Webb in a recent story in Utahpolicy.com.
So what is Dave Hansen’s expert opinion? Will it be President Biden? Or will the polls again miss the mark and Trump will continue to live in the White House?
“I’ve stopped predicting what will happen with Donald Trump because I’ve been wrong every time,” Hansen began by way of disclaimer. “But yes, I think he could very well win again. And to be honest with you, the closer it gets I think he just might. It’s probably not likely. But it could happen. History could repeat itself.”
In 2016, experts have analyzed, the polls were skewed because of three main factors: First, there were the so-called Shy Trumpers — people who didn’t tell pollsters they were voting for Trump even though they were voting for Trump. Second, the polls didn’t reach enough less-educated voters, a demographic that went for Trump in big numbers. Third, a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton kept Democrats numbers down at the voting booth.
Hansen sees all three factors still in play in 2020.
Shy Trumpers, he believes, “make up from 2 to 3%” of the electorate. “These are people who don’t trust the media and they don’t trust pollsters. They’re not going to tell you what they’re thinking, but they believe in their guy and they’re going to support him.”
He sees Trump’s appeal to the less-educated blue-collar middle class — people who tend to be underrepresented by the polls — as strong or stronger than four years ago.
“It used to be Republicans who were considered more college educated,” he said. “But Trump has changed that. He captured working voters who felt abandoned by both parties and spoke their language.”
And he doesn’t see Democrats being any more enthused for Joe Biden than they were for Hillary Clinton.
“They’re excited they have somebody living and breathing who is against Trump,” he said. “But they’re not enthused about Biden. He’s not drawing crowds. And Trump is.”
Another similarity to 2016, Hansen pointed out, are the swing states. States like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Georgia and Arizona that the polls suggest could go either way. It is these statewide polls that are much more relevant than the national polls. The popular vote could very well go to Biden, as it did with Clinton, and the Democrats could still lose the Electoral College race – and the presidency – if the battleground states all go Republican.
“If you look at the poll numbers in most of the battleground states, they’re all within Trump’s reach,” said Hansen.
Add it all up and … he’s saying there’s a chance.
“It’s probably not likely,” he reiterated, “But I have friends who are pollsters. I know they’re all nervous.”